When US airlines are good, they’re great…

One of the reasons that US airlines can’t for the life of ‘em compete with foreign airlines is the variability in service. When you fly Singapore Airlines you know exactly what you’re going to get as far as service goes. Some call Singapore Airlines service robotic; I just call it consistent. At the same time, a bit of personalization is lost when flight attendants are trained to be nice in a certain way.

I’ve witnessed everything on US airlines as far as service goes, from downright awful to amazing. When the service is amazing airlines like American and United can compete with Singapore Airlines (maybe not on the food front, but I’ve sometimes enjoyed United service more than Singapore service). When service is bad, the airlines should feel ashamed to even offer a “premium” cabin.

I think the key to good service at US airlines is for flight attendants to be able to tailor their service to each passenger. By that I mean that you have some flight attendants that like to joke around, but they need to know who they can joke around with. Along the same lines, some flight attendants are very informal, though they need to know with which passengers that’s appropriate. I’ve been in international first class on United to Frankfurt and seen a purser refer to a German doctor by his first name at first interaction, which was obviously offensive to him (title is a lot more important in Germany than in the States), as he told her to refer to him by his title.

Anyway, that brings me to today’s flight on American from London to Miami, which was spectacular. The service definitely wasn’t everyone’s “style,” in the sense that it was very informal, though respectfully so. The purser, Dave, was a guy in his late-60s, working my aisle in first class, and the flight attendant working the galley was his wife. First of all, how cool is that? As much of a pain as it is to work your way up in the airline industry over decades, when you have enough seniority so that you can always work with your wife on international trips, you have it made (which is apparently the case, since I asked him about it – they always fly together).

Like I said, Dave was informal, though tastefully so. During boarding the older couple seated in the center section a row up were taking pictures of each other. Dave went up to them and said “want me to take a picture of you two? The first one’s free.” As he distributed newspapers, he said “newspapers, newspapers, only one Pound.”

Dave was constantly smiling and starting conversations with everyone. As we were taxiing out he asked me whether I had seen “Hall Pass” before, and said if not, I should watch it. During the meal service he asked me how his wife’s cooking was, which I thought was hilarious.

At every interaction he was trying to push alcohol on passengers, reminding us that if we can’t walk upon landing he could call for wheelchairs. As the appetizer came around (which seems to be salmon and shrimp on every flight, with capers, onions, and sour cream) I couldn’t help but comment that it was poor man’s caviar. He quickly responded with “yeah, apparently Al-Qaeda likes caviar, because they took it with them after 9/11.” With the appetizer he said “something to drink, Ben?” I responded with “I’m good for now, thanks.” He said “how about some vodka?” “Nope, I’m fine, thanks.” “A little vodka maybe?” “Hah.” “Fine, champagne it is, then.”

Throughout the entire nine-hour flight he was quite literally through the cabin every five minutes to see if anyone wanted something to drink. He was relentless, and he never took no for an answer.

So Dave, my hats are off to you. Your positive attitude is contagious, and anyone that lands on your flight should consider themselves lucky.

Comments

  1. I always like it when I’m asked by the flight attendants if I’m driving. Sounds like that is not a concern of daves.

  2. Ben; you were correct; he is not everybody’s cup of tea; a little too informal for me; I don’t like when I am asked several times the same question (and don’t accept no for an answer); I do like for the flight attendants to respond quickly when I do ask for something.

  3. This is why I like American FAs better than Asian ones. I know Asian FAs are more consistent and offer better service, but when you get a friendly American FA, the flight is a lot more fun. I’m in my twenties (barely) and don’t need to be addressed as Mr. abcx. Had a great UA crew on SFO-LHR in F once who were just the right amount of casual.

  4. @ Brian — It was the beginning of a nine hour flight…

    @ JetAway — I flew British Airways from Paris to London.

    @ rami — But I felt he did a good job feeling out each passenger. He wasn’t quite as informal with everyone. He saw I was happy to joke around, and acted accordingly. But I definitely see where you’re coming from.

  5. I prefer much more the Asian approach. The AA style is quite often too informal. And I hate the jokes.. 😉 The reason is that I am not American so it is not really my cup of tea.

  6. I just had a great FC experience between HNL-NRT-BKK last week on United. Same on the return. Great crew, nice cabin, delicious food. Now granted these are Narita based crews and I know quite a few of them. But they are not all Asian, many are Americans. And I think they are much better than the TG crews I have encountered.

  7. I worked for American for 11 years. A passenger should not be addressed by his or her first name unless the passenger so requests the F/A to do so; even then, it is preferred to err toward the formal. Warm and gracious is supposed to be the standard. A good F/A will have a “second sense” of how a premium passenger wants to be treated — whether formal or less so. Gracious humour is often appreciated by passengers but care must be taken to cultural sensitivities.

  8. Hi Ben and thanks for an important report. Purser ‘Dave, as you note, late 60s and flying long enough to team with hiw wife most (all) of the time, has more than enough miles under his belt to make a good call on the degree of formality to use. At 60 (this week, damn it!) I might welcome welcome a first name address from him, but not for a 20-something FA on the same flight. It is a judgment call and as LES notes, edging toward the high side is never wrong. I am one that dislikes overly fluffy, even pissy service, yet expect the FAs to be available when needed. On ver long flights, I find it quite easy to establish a routine of simple eye contact and a quiet nod that easily replaces the constant contacts and offers of “May I offer you…” The sharp FAs that get my Five Stars quickly figure out that that instant of eye contact is plenty. If I need something,they can trot over to learn the detals. If not (95% of the time) they can go on with other business, not waste the time or the steps and I am more than pleased. While I do *not* dislike excellent service, there is also no need for them to be in the PAX face every four minutes. If the FC staff happens to miss my glance or the positive nod, there is always the call button. I would add that using the button once in a while is not, repeat NOT a poor reflection on the cabin staff. When confined to a comfortable chair at FL410 for 12+ hours and more than plenty to eat and drink, often literally on demand, damn few things are urgent and waiting a couple of minutes for the next offered glance or aisle pass is not going to make or break my trip. Front cabin travel is usually a very pleasant experience. On the longer flights, staff and PAX usually come to some unspoken agreement about levels of attention very early on. Front cabin attention is not an excuse to abuse anyone. (Those who do are usually inexperienced, or perhaps having their first front-end experience and testing the limits – and they are EASY to spot.) Simply knowing that the FA and his/her bag of tricks, goodies and services is available is usually plenty for me. My usual long distance routine is to get comfortable (jammmies when available) much the high-ends snacks lightly, drink very lightly and read. I don’t sleep well on planes and I rarely try. Sipping a beverage and devoting 8-10-12 hours to quiet reading is my great reward in the sky. On the ground, I NEVER have that much time to sip, snack and read. That’s my two cents wirth on FC cabin service. If you want the loose change, I think I dropped it. Love you blog and best wishes, -C.

  9. Is the reason for more consistent service on many foreign airlines vs. US airlines due to the ease of removing/firing FAs on the foreign airlines (i.e., they have a bigger hammer to use on the employees)?

  10. Singapore has a premium cabin, US airlines have frequent flyer cabins. Big difference…….

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